Factbox: What is "middle class" in the United States?

Tue Sep 14, 2010 11:45am EDT

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(Reuters) - Most Americans in the United States define themselves as being part of the middle class, but there are differing opinions of what that means.

President Barack Obama talks of "middle class tax cuts" that would apply to families who earn up to $250,000, which would cover all but the top 3 percent of U.S. households.

Many Republicans point out that location and expenses can affect class status -- a family earning $250,000 in a high-cost location like Manhattan, for example, may not consider themselves rich.

Economists say there is no specific criteria for defining the middle class, though income level is the most common way of breaking it down.

Below are some of the ways the middle class is defined:


Economists generally align the group according to earnings, even if there is no standard established range.

"Most people tend to think of themselves as middle class unless they're (billionaire investor) Warren Buffett or really poor," said J.D. Foster, an economist and senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Foster regards the upper 20 percent of earners as "upper income" and the lower 20 percent as "lower income." He regards the 60 percent in the middle as middle class, with household incomes roughly between $25,000 and $100,000.

Median household income in the United States was $52,175 in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.


Education can be another defining factor, as it is often correlated with income.

Some academics divide the middle class into an upper bracket that includes professionals and middle managers who hold postgraduate degrees and often earn more than $100,000 and a less affluent lower middle class that typically has some college education with household incomes around the national median.

These two groups account for roughly 45 percent of the population, depending on the model.

Blue-collar and clerical workers in the working class typically have a high school education, and many may describe themselves as "middle class" even though their incomes may be a fraction of those earned by professionals.

The poorest 12 to 20 percent of Americans often have not finished high school.

Profession and education level, however, does not always correlate with household income. A household with two blue-collar earners, for example, could take in more income than one headed by a single professional.


The American Heritage Dictionary defines the middle class as follows: "The socioeconomic class between the working class and the upper class, usually including professionals, highly skilled laborers, and lower and middle management."

Most Americans, however, generally consider the United States to be a classless society and associate the group with factors ranging from income and occupation to hobbies and lifestyles. Doctors, teachers, lawyers and plumbers can all belong.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Andy Sullivan; Editing by Tim Dobbyn and Leslie Adler)

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Comments (19)
1progressive wrote:
A classless society? Really? That view is illogical when we have such a clearly defined aristocracy, a large and growing lower class, and a shrinking middle class.

A class-based system by any other name…

Sep 14, 2010 4:41pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
RangerRick wrote:
what the problem in reaching a definition and a number, its based on income … simply taken household income for a metro area in the country or a county and … the poorest 20% of the householdsin terms of income are the poor and top 20% in terms of income are the rich the middle 605 are the middle class.. but what seems to me missing in not te definitionof who is and who is not in the middle class but the growing gap in incomes beteen the poor and the rich.. and the politician are missing the whole purpose of have a democracity.. which is redistribute wealth through taxes.. I can not believe how many people forget that the top marginal income tax rate rate on each additional dollared earn) when John Kennedy become president was 70% on earned income (Wages and salary) for the rich. .. he is the democrate that started the overall income tax cutting trend that has occurred since than where the top marginal tax rateis now something like 38%. And of course taxe rates on capital gains have gone down for everyone but befit the rich the most.

Sep 14, 2010 5:38pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
awayneramsey wrote:
So now the Republican mouthpieces are defining those of us who are not included in America. We don’t have enough education, money, no job or prospect of a living-wage job, we’re too old―but not yet seniors; therefore we must not exist because we are not between the working or upper classes―we do not exist! Beware folks! One day you may take your place with us and there are 3000 of us that I know of from West to East. I know a state that I shall not name, but its state legislature resolved to sunset its human services department. Its senators are predominately Republican. No human services department no administration costs, no welfare or safety-net for the disfranchised. When your job is offshored, outsourced or you finally realize that you are expendable when your human resources regional director and manager visits impromptu with a severence package stating that you will be directed into placement within the corporation (that never materilizes), what will you do? I’m voting Democrat.

Sep 14, 2010 6:06pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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